Although the subscription-based business model is still dominant in academic journals publishing, open access is finding its way into the mainstream. Most of the large journal publishers that have adopted open access, however, utilize article processing charges (APCs) as their revenue generating mechanism. This model shifts payments from the consumer side to the producer side—from the reader to the author. And while publishers have made moves to assure that new journals created are open access, most existing journals remain subscription-based, offering, at best, authors the option to pay an APC to designate their published articles as open access (so-called hybrid open access).
As was mentioned in the previous post, a white paper published in April 2015 by the Max Planck Digital Library sought to demonstrate that there is enough money in the current global academic publishing system (coming largely from library resource acquisitions budgets) to fund the complete transformation of all journals to open access. The white paper’s authors contend that this massive transformation could be accomplished if current subscription expenditures were immediately repurposed to pay for APCs.
If the goal of open access is the removal of barriers so that readers can gain access to all published scholarly communication then this disruptive proposal would seem a reasonable solution. And yet, the planners and participants of the international symposium “Envisioning a World Beyond APCs/BPCs” held on November 17-18, 2016 at the University of Kansas, were not satisfied.
What is the problem with the APC business model for achieving universal open access such that the symposium planners wanted us to envision moving beyond them? If not APCs, what other viable models might be available to us for achieving universal open access? My intent in this follow-up post is not simply to transcribe the livestream (you can view video recordings on the KU MediaHub here and here) but to highlight some of the more compelling insights shared, especially as they bear on scholarly communication in religious studies and theology.
The first of eighteen panelists, Juan Pablo Alperin from Simon Fraser University and the Public Knowledge Project, articulated a fundamental critique of the APC model:
A world in which there are barriers to access to knowledge is problematic. But a world that provides that access through article processing charges does so by changing the problem of exclusion from a problem of access to read to a problem of access to write, in particular, for parts of the world that have less resources available to them, and from institutions and from people working from fields in which there aren’t abundant resources to pay article processing charges. … A world in which [scholars] cannot participate to write is even worse than a world where they cannot access to read. … We need to take back ownership of our publications. I think the way we solve this problem is by having scholarly publishing come back to being scholar led and scholar owned. I think we can take some lessons from the platform cooperativism movement, in which those benefits that online platforms give us come back to the community of stakeholders.
The traditional subscription model has tended to shield scholarly authors from the economics of their publication activity. Arguably, they should become better informed about the costs. But APC sticker-shock, especially in disciplines without large budgets or lucrative grant funding—the humanities in general, and religious studies and theology in particular—may effectively inhibit research output, creating a different form of exclusion. The idea that a scholar should have to pay to have their work published (again, notwithstanding the fact that someone else, typically the library, has been paying via subscriptions) is an affront to longstanding traditions of scholarly communication. A related consequence of APCs is that they dis-incentivize scholars from publishing in open access venues (a point raised by another panelist). As Peter Suber has observed, there is a persistent misunderstanding among reluctant scholars when they erroneously equate the term Gold Open Access—simply the label applied to open access journals—with the imposition of APCs. As it happens, a majority of Gold Open Access journals do not fund themselves through the use of APCs.
Alperin responded to the suggestion that APC waivers could address the inability to pay. Reading between the lines when he noted that Latin America has long had a robust open access scholarly communication system that does not charge APCs (a point echoed by a couple other panelists), I sensed he would call waivers from Western/Global North publishers a form of paternalism designed to keep the dominant system in place.
Ivy Anderson, Director of Collection Development at the California Digital Library, highlighted a significant barrier to open access adoption, at least in the West/Global North:
We know that authors at primarily Western—North American and European—institutions are largely publishing in mainstream journals that dominate Western publishing, and they have not abandoned those journals in large numbers. Open access ranks quite low in author priorities. In fact, as Carol Tenopir has put it in the University of California’s Pay It Forward study, reputation-building within a discipline is by far the most important priority for academic authors. … The two big gap questions for those of us who want to take back academic journal publishing, or to reconstruct journal publishing in a radical new way, are: If we build it will they come? Or put differently, What are the conditions that we need to put in place in order to encourage our scholars to make this transition? … With respect to other stakeholders such as societies, we often talk about publishers in a very monolithic way. I think there is much more that we could do to engage with societies about what it would take for [them] to transition their journals [to open access].
Scholars trade in reputation, and they commonly seek to enhance their reputations and academic careers by affiliating their research writing with prestigious journals and venerable publishing houses. As later panelists noted, this quest to build reputation is complicated by a system of academic advancement (tenure and promotion) that too often shorthands the evaluation of scholarly research quality by assessing where that research gets published. We will continue to have difficulty encouraging scholars to publish in open access venues until we can convince institutions and academic advancement committees—which are staffed by scholarly colleagues—to legitimize a wider range of venues for research reporting, and also to focus their assessment of research quality on the research itself. Noting above the problem of incentivizing open access as a priority among scholars, as the scholarly reputation economy is currently constructed—which includes editing and peer review provided by colleagues as a professional courtesy—publishers, too, are not strongly motivated to mess too much with an arrangement that has been so profitable to them.
Anderson’s comment about engaging with societies is especially interesting. As a librarian, I have watched in recent years (and wrote about it earlier here) as the operations of many well-respected and reasonably priced religion and theological society journals have been sold to commercial publishers. The all too common result of these transactions is significantly higher subscription rates, which puts added pressure on accessibility. What if we had been able to intervene with a compelling case to have these societies convert their journals to open access instead of going the commercial route?
Among the reasons societies often give for transferring their journal operations to commercial publishers is that they struggle with assembling the necessary voluntary labor. Too, they recognize the benefits of a range of professional services that publishers provide. These points were highlighted by panelist Martin Eve, from the University of London, Birkbeck and the Open Library of Humanities (an open access publishing platform that does not charge APCs):
In removing APCs, how do we make sure that we keep the visibility of labor? There are things we want doing from publishers—typesetting, copy editing, proof reading, digital preservation, platform maintenance, etc. If you’re not paying for those things directly as an author in a service model, how do we make sure that that labor is still valued and get those things that are important?
We must of course take seriously that the costs of publishing do not disappear with open access. But can we recover the costs of labor and the provision of professional publishing services by other means? One compelling case we might make to scholars, academic institutions, and scholarly societies to set this up is to remind them of their fundamental purpose and mission—the creation and dissemination of knowledge leading to the growth of understanding of some topic, or directed toward the solution of some problem for the common good.
Arianna Becerril Garcia, Director of Technology and Innovation for Redalyc (Network of Scientific Journals of Latin America and the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal) wondered about the curious way scholarly communication has developed in the Global North:
Science produced and published in Latin America has always been open access. Open access has been the natural way in which our scientific communication system works. Journals have been supported by universities and research institutions. The majority of them, about 90%, including the most prestigious, are published by public universities. … The tradition of scholarly publishing has not been outsourced to commercial publishers, nor ever supported by charging authors. So, I would really like to understand how the Global North could let some companies grow in such a way that universities cannot control the scholarly publishing enterprise. I wonder if there is any publishing tradition inside universities of the Global North that could have been lost. In that case, could it be recovered?
Academic institutions and societies in the Global North have and continue to outsource their scholarly publishing to “some companies,” effectively losing control of the enterprise and the traditions that gave it birth. Can these traditions be recovered within and among the community of scholars? This is an echo of what Juan Pablo Alperin said above about scholars taking back the leadership and ownership of their publications.
A similar theme was presented by panelist Jean-Claude Guedon from the University of Montreal, who wrote in his participant bio:
I support OA [open access] for areas of knowledge sometimes neglected by OA communities: the humanities, the social sciences, open access in developing and emerging nations. I am concerned by the ability of a few large publishers to embrace OA while shaping it so as to preserve their economic privileges. I am concerned by the business model based on APCs: it can intensify cognitive injustice in the world, while easing the rise of pseudo-journals.
He continued this line of thinking in his livestream response:
We have to know how to shape open access. Open access is fundamentally about communication among scientists and scholars. … It is not a financial problem. It’s a communication problem. Humanity deals with reality by having organized a very lovely system of distributed intelligence based on communication. The priorities, therefore, are simple. Fit everything else into that imperative of communication first. So, in particular, let’s not immediately start by saying how do we make this durable, or as people prefer to say nowadays, sustainable. … Scientific research has never been sustainable. It’s been subsidized for the last four centuries. So why shouldn’t communication among scientists be subsidized as well?
In the human community of scholars, this “imperative of communication” manifests itself in a desire both to share the results of scholarly investigations and to have those investigations discovered and read by others. No scholar can be happy about barriers imposed on this communication process. In the print era, scholars were forced to accept certain barriers, not as a desire but as a practical problem of space, time, and the limitations implicit in the available technology. Publishers profited off the scarcity created by these limitations by providing and controlling the communication infrastructure—they owned the printing presses. In the digital/network era, publishers seek to maintain control by perpetuating an impression of scarcity by reinforcing subscriptions and pay-for-view paywalls on the reader side, or if pressured to adopt open access, by “shaping it so as to preserve their economic privileges.” By subsidizing scholarly communication, I don’t think Guedon has in mind having academic institutions and grant funders continue sending truckloads of cash in the form of APCs to publishers. I sense rather that he means institutions should invest in and support the development of a cooperative global digital infrastructure for end-to-end open scholarly communication as an integral part of the research process consistent with institutional missions.
There are numerous details to work out in constructing such an end-to-end communication infrastructure. That was a significant part of what the symposium was all about. But it was also important to hear Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC remind us of the founding characteristic of the open access movement:
The open access movement has truly been, from the start, a social justice movement. A group of loosely organized individuals and organizations who have a well-articulated shared concern for changing a specific aspect of the status quo. As a movement, we have been working to correct imbalances in the fundamental global system of how we share knowledge, and how to promote open and equitable access to information in order to serve the public good.
I don’t mean this in a confessional sense, or even as some ego-free altruism. Debates among scholars of religion can become quite heated! But there is something congenial in my mind about affiliating the academic study of religion or theology with a model of scholarly communication rooted in social justice. As a practical matter, there is nothing gained by foreclosing on the widest possible dissemination of ideas. Meanwhile, an ethos of openness affirms that no one should be excluded by structural means from making a contribution to the enhancement of our understanding of those ideas.
Oops! I see this post is running long, and I haven’t yet touched on the second hour of the symposium livestream. I believe I will go ahead and push the “publish” button on this post, and then follow-up with my highlights from the second hour in a third report.